Living after tragedy: the UN Baghdad bomb, one year on

About the author
Gil Loescher wrote a column for oD with Arthur Helton on refugees. He was gravely wounded in the attack on the UN in Iraq in 2003 and Arthur was killed.

One year ago, on 19 August 2003, a suicide bomber attacked the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The results were devastating. Twenty-two people were killed: fifteen United Nations officials – among them the UN special envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello – two NGO representatives, a diplomat, a translator, a contract worker, an unknown person, and my friend and colleague, the human rights lawyer Arthur Helton. About 150 other people, including myself, were injured.

Today, exactly one year later, simple ceremonies of commemoration mark the first anniversary of the event in three places: at United Nations headquarters in New York, at its regional office in Amman, and at its offices in Geneva – where the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, gives an address and unveils a commemorative plaque.

Gil Loescher’s media appearances on and around the anniversary of the Baghdad bombing on 19 August include the ABC Nightline programme in the United States; an interview with Tim Sebastian on BBC World and BBC News 24’s Hardtalk; and (on 21,22 and 23 August) an interview on the CNN International programme Diplomatic License.

In January 2004, I attended a special session of the European parliament in Brussels where the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded in memory of those who died. Kofi Annan received it on behalf of all the staff of the United Nations. The Sakharov Prize is one of the most prestigious human rights awards; it honours people who show remarkable tenacity and dedication to their principles in the face of great odds.

Outside the European parliament’s assembly hall there was a special display of photographs of all those who died that late afternoon in Baghdad. For the first time since the blast, I was able to see the faces of those who had been with me in the office of Sergio Vieira de Mello. The pictures showed smiling, energetic faces reflecting hope and optimism. Some had feared the call to live and work in Baghdad. But they did not let that affect the way they took the principles of the United Nations to the Iraqi people. They worked at the coalface of peacemaking. Each individual in that display represented a life tragically cut short by the forces of hatred and intolerance (click here for the full list of all those who died).

Sergio Vieira de Mello was widely admired for his work. He perceived himself as a civil servant of the UN trying to find common ground between states, trying to represent what the UN stood for in terms of its charter and the principles it advocated. He developed himself as a consummate diplomat, seeking to persuade governments – including the United States – to recognise their interests in a broader sense than they might otherwise have done.

I want to dedicate a few words to Arthur Helton. I first met him in the early 1980s when he worked for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) in New York. He was assisting Haitian asylum-seekers by going down to the Brooklyn dockyards to advocate on their behalf. Arthur was among the first Americans to put into practise the application of human rights principles in this way.

I kept in touch with Arthur over the years because he was someone who worked on issues that were important to me. And I know how influential he was similarly for others. The first time I wrote regularly with him was for openDemocracy when he encouraged me to map, monitor and assess with him the humanitarian consequences of the Iraq war we both knew were coming.

I think a lot about Arthur. Over the last twelve months he has been a model to me in a personal way that also makes him part of my own recovery. A few years ago, his doctor sternly told him that he had to lose weight and go on a physical regime. He became very determined. He trained, became strong and fit and then ran in the New York marathon. As I have run my own personal marathon over this past year, his determination has inspired me to carry on our work.

Only fifteen weeks after the Baghdad atrocity, openDemocracy published Gil Loescher’s vivid account of the experience and its implications for the UN’s future: “‘I was not going to die in the rubble’” (December 2003)

I believe that those of us who have survived the Baghdad attack have a personal incentive to continue to try to uphold the principles of dedicated UN staff members all over the world, especially of those who perished in Baghdad. We must take from this tragic event a renewed sense of commitment to doing whatever small things we can to try to repair our damaged world. For my part, I will continue to study and report (including restarting our regular column for openDemocracy) on issues that mattered so much to my friends and colleagues, and to all those others who died that day while working to ensure the growth of humanitarian ideals.

This is also an occasion to think about how the United Nations can work in the new global environment. This was not the first time that the organisation has lost its staff in an outburst of violence. But the UN in Iraq learned to its dismay and horror that its humanitarian flags and symbols were no longer enough to protect its staff members; they could be seen as a provocation.

In the summer and autumn of 2003, the UN was extremely vulnerable to the kind of outrages that occurred on 19 August and 22 September (when a further bomb blast killed a UN security guard and two local police officers). In the diplomatic discussions that had accompanied the build-up to war in March 2003, the UN Security Council had refused to endorse the planned intervention by the United States-United Kingdom; yet at no time did either the Security Council or the General Assembly formally question the invasion’s legality.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the invasion the Security Council passed resolutions that not only recognised the occupation authority but also the Iraqi regime it had installed. Such actions made the UN vulnerable to charges that it was an integral part of the occupation authority and to hostile attacks from those who violently opposed the occupation.

For many months now, the US and the UK have encouraged the UN to return to Iraq and to play a more active role in the post-war administration there, and it has indeed just returned with a small team. However, because the UN is still perceived as supporting the interim Iraqi authority and the occupation forces, it remains just as exposed to criticisms about its lack of independence and impartiality. Thus, despite the devastating and cathartic nature of the attack, the UN is not in any safer position in Iraq today than it was a year ago. The UN in Iraq remains a prime target for the suicide bombers.

This is very regrettable because it is in the realms of humanitarian action and post-conflict reconstruction that the UN can make a vital contribution to future international order. Its specialised agencies have considerable experience in a wide range of governance functions and have been deeply involved in the temporary administration of war-torn countries. The UN, if it were given sufficient political support and financial resources, could potentially make a real difference in these roles.

Even now I find it difficult to express my feelings about those who died so tragically and those who were so badly injured on 19 August 2003. Several months ago I received a card from a retired postman neighbour of mine. On it he had written a quotation from EM Forster that – even as a democrat – I believe appropriately describes many of the people I knew who died or were injured at the UN headquarters in Baghdad:

“I believe in…an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes…They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory…over cruelty and chaos”.

Arthur C. Helton, 1949-2003
Among his many professional projects and associations, Arthur Helton had led the refugee project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (1982-94); founded and directed the forced migration projects at the Open Society Institute (1994-99); worked at the Council on Foreign Relations as director of peace and conflict studies and senior fellow for refugee studies and preventive action (from 1999); and become president of Strategic Humanitarian Action and Research (Share) in 2003.
He was the author of around 100 scholarly articles, and two books: The Price of Indifference: refugees and humanitarian action in the new century (Oxford University Press, 2002) and (with Natalia Voronina) Forced Displacement and Human Security in the Former Soviet Union (Transnational, 2000)
A series of tributes to Arthur Helton, along with more extensive biographical information, is published here